What's groove? pt. I
Updated: Apr 6, 2020
Why do I want to know what groove is
I’m not trying to find out what groove is to judge over other musicians and artists. I want to know what groove is so that I can get there more often myself. I’d really like to be able to give people the feeling that I get when I hear great music or when I play with somebody who’s really grooving. Before having written this post all I knew about groove was that it felt good and maybe that’s all I needed to know. But if I were simply chasing the feeling, I could probably just get drunk before every gig and have the time of my life. Now that I have thought about groove for a while I actually don't know much more, but I got to have many great conversations about this topic.
About my earlier point: the disparity between what the creator feels while creating and what the listeners perceive. We all had this happen to us, the performance felt great but it just didn't get across. How to get one's point and feeling across to the audience is an interesting topic but I won't discuss it in this post. It's coming though.
I’m not an expert
As in all my posts I’m by no means trying to give any absolute answers, neither am I giving advice. I’d rather just try to explore different perspectives and hopefully raise some questions and ideas that haven’t been discussed too often yet.
Groove is being talked about a lot. Everybody who plays or listens to music is looking for that feeling. I believe that during the beginnings of Jazz musicians started to use phrases like “being in the groove” for when the musicians were playing particularly well or when a performance was worthy to be put on a record. One of the many Wikipedia entries on the word ‘groove’ defines it like this: “a groove is a long and narrow indentation built into a material, generally for the purpose of allowing another material or part to move within the groove and be guided by it.” This meaning is used in construction and engineering, but I think it relates very well to music as well. It could even be the origin of the term in its musical context.
Jojo Mayer and Aldo Mazza discuss groove in an interview on YouTube. They make the argument that groove is, like food, culture sensitive. That means that not in all cultures the same foods have the same significance. Whenever I invite Paraguayan people over for dinner to eat Fondue (melted cheese with cubes of bread), after three pieces of bread they’re done eating and expect some kind of meat to be served for dinner. In India pizza is a snack and not a dinner. And in Italy they’ll throw you out of the restaurant if you put pineapple on your pizza.
This analogy translates to music and its groove. Certain elements of music are simply different in different parts of the world. Where something might work, something else just doesn’t. Not because it’s not good, but because the listeners are used to something else. That raises the question whether groove is a universal phenomenon. I’d say that it is, that every culture, every person, can experience groove. But I don’t think that there’s a piece of music on which all people would agree that it grooves. I’m pretty sure that there are certain pieces of music where a majority of people would agree that there’s groove, but there will always be the ones that don’t feel it. What I’m saying is, that even though groove is experienced universally it is still a very subjective experience.
Who’s to say
Who decides whether it’s grooving or not? I’d argue that, like any manifestation of artistic (abstract) expression, not the creator decides whether it’s art or not, but the one experiencing it. And each person decides for themselves. (Note, the creator will always be the creator, but the creator can also be on the experiencing side. Just think of a chef that eats the meal he created himself.) Again, just like with food, there are big over-lapses in taste. We all need protein, carbohydrates and fats. So, there’s probably going to be some consensus on what needs to be eaten and tastes good. But with the wide variety of foods that are available today the consensus ends pretty much there.
Also, when we talk about groove, we have to remember that we’re talking (only) about one aspect of music. It is an important one but still, music consists of way more than just groove, and it’s ok to like something even though it might not groove. There are great compositions that don’t really groove but still find their way into our hearts.
I know taste plays a huge role in deciding whether a composition is good or bad. But everybody can decide for themselves. The point I want to make though is that in order to groove the composition most likely has to be good. I don’t think that taste (a good composition) is separable from the feeling of groove. In a badly written song, the bass player might still groove. The bassist most likely came up (composed) with a cool bass line and played it groovy as well. But the song overall just won’t groove because the rest is composed poorly. Making a bad composition groove is hard if not impossible to do.